8 More Things I Learned at ISTE

I’ve only been to a couple of really large conferences. At these, it seems that keynotes are usually preceded by a local group of performers. Today’s keynote had a great local dance group, but that group was preceded by dancing robots. They even bowed at the end. Anyway, it was another fun filled day of learning. I’m exhausted and while I know my way around the convention center in Philadelphia now, it’s still overwhelming. Anyway, here are 8 more things I learned today.

Bring on the Dancing Robots

8 ) The keynote speaker today was Steven Covey author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People from a gazillion years ago. He was here to talk about leadership, especially in kids. On the website for his book The Leader in Me, Covey has the phrase – “Leadership is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.” During the keynote, he defined leadership as the communication of other people’s worth and potential. He then started to incorporate his 7 steps and use the terms skill sets, tool sets, and mindsets (of which the first two lead to incremental changes and mindsets lead to quantum leaps). Perhaps I’m too cynical, but hasn’t Covey written about these “7 habits” over and over again. This time he just melds Dweck’s work (without giving her credit) and uses the term mindset as the underlying foundation of his 7 habits. Don’t get me wrong. I think his habits are really applicable and relevant to both teachers and students; it’s just not exactly new and innovative. Nonetheless, I left with some great quotes and a good reminder of these seven habits:

“The best way to change the future is to create it.”

“Live life in crecsendo.”

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

He also mentioned how test scores are the “worst form of identity theft we can give [kids].”

7) I met some great teachers (one who is an NAIS teacher of the future), who are planning on putting on an EdCamp in May in Seattle. I’m diving head first into volunteering to organize. I actually only learned what an EdCamp is today for the first time and look forward to being part of the team. The video below explains it. A very cool way for teachers to share.

6) I learned of a math fact fluency program that is adaptive and individualized, can be used anywhere (classroom, lab, home), is easy for teachers to monitor progress and will save countless hours of photocopying fact sheets, correcting, and keeping track of something that should be an automated mindless task these days freeing up the teacher to analyze where the gaps are in the students’ memory of math facts. Reflex is the name of that program.

5) I learned about a free QR code generator at qrcode.kaywa.com. QR codes are those square barcode like symbols seen on this sidebar, that can be read with your camera on your mobile device. That one just takes you to this blog. There are some very cool applications for this.

4) Hitachi has a product to help simulate an interactive white board on your pre-exsisting one. Unlike ebeam, however, you don’t need a stylus (just your finger will do), you can have three kids up there simultaneously, and the multi-fingured and whole hand gestures are pretty cool. Priced at $750 it’s a fraction of the cost of SMART boards.  I also saw some great portable systems that help lower the interactive whiteboards so kids can use it – both the white board and the projector is mounted onto the cart. The interactive whiteboard wars are starting to shape up and there aren’t just two major players anymore. That’s good for everyone as long as people don’t get to set on each company’s proprietary software. It’s funny how most of the whiteboard demos, elementary, middle, or high, were designed with the teacher standing in front of the class and the class sitting and responding. I get that teachers will use that tool frequently, but I hope students actually get up there and are the ones interacting with the board. Below is a page from Samsung’s brochure. Notice the desks in rows and the students all sitting passively?

3) I learned that I still don’t know how so many companies are selling single use devices for outrageous sums when a $9.99 app on an ipad will do the same thing.

2) I went to an incredible session on how to develop global empathy in children. Some examples: Grandparents in Ireland reading to the class via skype or podcast. Using twitter hashtags, a middle school teacher found a few adult directors who were tweeting about various scenes. The kids who were directing their version of the play tweeted their directions and got feedback from adult directors in England.

1) The steps Rocky ran up to the Philadelphia Art Museum aren’t that arduous but make for a great scene in a movie. By the way, why is it that almost all attractions shut down the same time each day the conference is over?

View of the city from the top of the steps to the Philadelphia Art Museum


Learning WITH Your Students

We were very fortunate with our new school building to have a garden bed built for every grade. Integrating gardening into the curriculum would be one strand through which children would learn about sustainability. There was one small problem though: I didn’t know very much about gardening. So, when the year began, I promised my students that I would write a reflection on my blog for every journal entry they wrote. Seattle’s winter has been pretty miserable, so it’s been a while since we observed or wrote anything.

We learned about growing plants and food in many ways. We read non-fiction and fiction (I have a new appreciation for The Secret Garden), did some actual gardening, planted trees in a local park for our all-school service day, and most importantly learned from others. (One of our teachers is a master gardener, and we are lucky enough that she is also a school neighbor allowing us, not only the opportunity to learn from someone passionate about gardening, but also having  classes visit her own personal garden many times a year.) Just last week, we were in her garden measuring the perimeter of various beds with non-standard units of the children’s own feet. This led to a great discussion about standard and non-standard units for measurement.

We learned about the worm bins and compost bins (our fifth graders collect the compost from the classes once a week and add them to the bins). We also learned how to fertilize the soil using cover crops such as vetch and clover. Then, just before spring break, the two second grade classes planted some flowers, radishes, and a host of lettuce greens. This week, we took some time to observe our garden bed, think about all the garden related activities we did, and then write a journal entry. Next week, we should be ready to taste a few things.

I keep telling my students that learning never ends. I always learn from them as they have so much to teach, but to also have the opportunity to learn with them, is pretty special.

Repost: We Need More Patient Problem Solvers

I posted this about a year ago, and what I love is colleagues who say, “Hey did you see this?” I’m just really happy they are finding it their own way and sharing with everybody. That’s a very important reason why some educators blog, tweet, and whatnot.  It’s not about whether they read it then or not, it’s that it creates a culture of sharing and continued reflection and growth. I was very happy to see my colleague post this TEDx talk. (By the way, I’m headed to my first TEDx event in a few minutes. All about inquiry,  innovation, and identity through instruction. I can’t wait. I will share via twitter to try an encourage our faculty into the positive and responsible use of social media even more.) Twitter is how I scored the ticket to the event!

I’m not a big fan of text books. Good tools, perhaps and also convenient. Still, it doesn’t make us better teachers. Furthermore, textbooks in many ways dumb down ideas. In math, textbooks tend to encourage the “one way to get to the right answer” kind of questions. I was great at at decoding textbooks and thus was very successful in high school. But how does someone get an A in a subject like physics and have no clue how the world works? Kids really need to understand how things work rather than learn to manipulate formulas. Students have to come up with problems, reason, and have patience.

His wonderful TED talk explains the problem with math in this country today. Making math real is what it’s about. In second grade, when a child asks, “How many more minutes to recess?” resisting the temptation to tell them and saying instead, “There’s the clock,” provides a real need to learn how to do it.

When you dine with friends and its time to split the bill, it’s amazing how often people pull out their calculators to divide and then calculate the tip. Often they are the same people who knew how to use the quadratic equation at one time. Something is not right in the way math is taught. Hopefully, we as educators learn how to it better.

He’s got a good blog: http://blog.mrmeyer.com/

Where’s the Math

After doing my taxes this past weekend, I realized that I did so without doing any math. I just put numbers into various boxes and trusted the software to do the rest. Perhaps the only math involved was having a sense whether those numbers I was entering seemed reasonable. This made me start to wonder about the math most adults do in their daily lives. How many people use the quadratic formula in their daily lives? Yet, when they learned it, did they learn it in a valuable enough way, that with that new knowledge, they can think in a particular way? How many know that when there are six people dining and you split the bill evenly, leaving a 20% tip, all you have to do is just divide the bill by five and have the sixth person cover the tip? If your student is working on 3-digit by 3-digit subtraction and on a post-test makes many errors, can you tell what directly caused those errors?

I ask that last question because as a school we’ve been examining several math curricula. One of them has an incredible technology component that includes computer based assessments. It’s amazing how quickly you get data back and the teacher doesn’t even have to grade the paper. Easy, right? Upon further reflection though, a child who might still get about half the questions directly involving 3-digit by 3-digit subtraction wrong, the data would simply just indicate that. Without examining the scratch piece of paper, interviewing your student, or observing the child in action, you wouldn’t be able to isolate whether or not the error was a simple fact error, errors with regrouping, inversion, or even adding instead of subtracting. If you were able to isolate what that error was, though, imagine how quickly you could help that child develop.

This month’s issue of the journal, Teaching Children Mathematics, contains a few great articles. One is called, “Action Research Improves Math Instruction,” which features elementary school teachers who, as part of a course they’re taking, embark on a “practitioner-based” research process in their classrooms. One of them, a 3rd grade teacher, looked carefully at 3-digit subtraction, read about the kinds of common errors children make on questions like these and decided to make her students ‘subtraction detectives.’ They had equations that were already solved, some with errors, and they had to practice finding and describing the error. The improvement in her students’ assessments improved greatly. The teacher didn’t know whether this was a ‘best-practice’ but it made solid sense to her and she gave it a try. The article mentions that “Action research addresses specific student needs, targets classroom issues, keeps teachers current, and discourages ineffectual methods.”

This year, our school has been examining several different math curricula with one of its objectives being a common scope and sequence. Today, we had a faculty meeting discussing the pros and cons of the different curricula, and I found the discussion rich and robust. We also asked ourselves some very important questions. We didn’t come up with any immediate answers, but I was really impressed when colleagues disagreed with each other, how the discourse remained passionate, but civil, and everyone made extremely insightful and thoughtful comments. Everyone seemed to be aware of their own biases as they spoke. I wondered, leaving that meeting though, and re-reading this article, if we needed not only to think of a common set of expectations, but if we could also find ways to examine student progress even more carefully and identify where gaps lie, or how their learning can be enriched.

Another article in the same issue called, “Professional Development Delivered Right to Your Door.” It listed the following as Best Practices of Professional Development: Professional Development must be –

  1. grounded in participant-driven inquiry, reflection, and experimentation;
  2. collaborative, involving a sharing of knowledge among educators and a focus on teachers’ communities of practice rather than on individual teachers;
  3. connected to and derived from teachers’ work with their students;
  4. sustained, ongoing, intensive, and supported by modeling, coaching, and the collective solving of specific problems of practice;
  5. related to other aspects of school change; and
  6. engaging, involving teachers in concrete tasks of teaching, assessment, observation, and reflections that illuminate the processes of learning and development (Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin 1995).

Regardless what direction we go in math, I feel like we met all those goals. I think the process was, and will continue to be an ongoing one. I feel very fortunate to work at a school with such caring and passionate teachers.


Day 1 of Flipping the Classroom

There’s the common expression, “Change is hard. You go first.” Well, I’ve been doing a few firsts this past year or so, partly because I decided not to wait. If I think it’s worth experimenting with, I’ll try it. What I’ve learned is that with a few of these things, I might have been better off talking about it, rather than dive right in. As a result, I may have ruffled a few feathers here and there and had to repair a few work relationships. It was actually a good exercise in growth for me and made me a lot more reflective about what I want to do next.

I started this blog, for example to share what I learned at a conference, but decided to keep it going because I actually enjoy it. Because I had no expectation of anyone else blogging, I was oblivious to the fact that some might feel that they would have to share what they learned via a blog. It’s just my way, and I enjoy it. I also started my own classroom website because I couldn’t wait for our school’s official site to have all the features I wanted. It’s worked for me and my students’ parents and that’s really all it boils down to. There are so many ways to communicate, sometimes the purpose dictates they type.

Well, I’m at it again. After only a couple of weeks since the TED talk “Flipping the Classroom” aired, I unleashed Khan Academy upon my second graders. Honestly, the videos are pretty dry and boring for the most part, but the kids love the exercises, the immediate feedback, and the choice. One child decided for homework tonight to head to the geometry section which asks for the area and circumference of circles. He made a few attempts, got all them wrong and decided he’d come back another time. It was very non-threatening. Today was just the first day, we headed to the media lab so they could learn how to login and logoff. And even though I assigned about 10 to 20 minutes, I noticed that many kids were engaged enough to spend much more time on it. I’m actually more excited about the data that might come back after Spring Break. Why? So much of good math pedagogy is not just helping a child develop a concept, but asking the right questions. Knowing what children have mastered, allows you to target your questions more precisely. Of course good teachers who already know their students well do this, but with the added data, who knows.

One interesting unintended consequence occurred. Many of my students have older siblings. So far, I’ve gotten great feedback from parents, but they wanted to know how their older child could sign in. I told them how and that they could sign me up as their coach if they wished. This is a big experiment. I don’t intend to have students using Kahn Academy in class, but only at home. What I will do, is use the data to help inform the way I teach each child. As Kahn put it in his TED talk, “Flipping the Classroom.”

Kahn Academy approaches math in a very linear, sterile manner, but with some of the basic skills under their belt, they may be able to really grapple with project based learning activities which involve plenty of mathematical problems, creativity, and the beauty of math that doesn’t always get to see the light of day the way our math texts are written. Who knows? This is still day one of doing things a little differently. It may just end up being something faddish, which is something I  usually try to avoid, but when I see some potential in how it can help kids, I’ll dive head first. Sign in for yourself and try some of the later differential questions. Do you even remember how to do them? More importantly, do you know why? I’ll keep you apprised of how my little experiment goes.

When Statistics Mean Something

I just got back from a lecture featuring Stephen Dubner (coauthor of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics). If you’re not familiar with those books, they try to strip away how we ‘feel’ about a particular topic (for example, teachers cheating on standardized test scores, or the hand hygiene of doctors in hospitals) and they address those sorts of topics “with neither fear nor favor, letting numbers speak the truth.” When we think of economics, we usually think of budgets, currency, the stock markets, etc., but what Dubner and his coauthor Levitt do is look at what some call ‘behavioral economics.’

A few things stood out in his talk. One was the reminder about how we are much more able to perceive traits (good and bad) in others than we are at seeing them in ourselves. Another is how hard it is to change human behavior. Finally, when collecting data, how you collect it is really important. Self-reported data, according to Dubner is usually pretty useless (especially if you ask people on a survey to identify themselves – even as a group). He gave an example of a headline that went something like this: “Recent survey shows that favor of nuclear power has declined.” Hmmm, a survey taken right after a tsunami destroying a nuclear reactor. Dubner mentioned how these surveys/polls are everywhere and those are not the kinds of statistics he is attracted to.  He also warned everyone about using incentives to try to change behavior. They have a tendency to backfire. Dubner also made a case for thinking outside the box. “Be a heretic,” he said, “but remember that most were wrong, many were executed, however, those who were right and lived, changed the world.” In terms of education, this talk reminded me of the importance of keeping our rigorous curriculum balanced between learning basic skills and fostering natural curiosity and creativity. For me, It was interesting to compare his talk with that of David Brooks who I saw last week when he was in town promoting his book. I was fascinated by many of the similarities.

Speaking of numbers, if you haven’t visited the site Gapminder by Swedish Statitician Hans Rosling, you really ought to. Can numbers be fascinating? They certainly can, and he does an incredible job on his interactive website which visualizes the data on world development. He’s done numerous TED talks advocating that one of the ways to stave off world population growth is to create wealth in all nations. His latest talk “The Magical Washing Machine” is only about 6 minutes long and well worth watching till the end when he makes his point. It makes me want to take more statistics courses.


Math is a Fine Art

This weekend, I read the book A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Artform by Paul Lockhart with a Foreword by Keith Devlin. It starts with this quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

In the foreword, Devlin says that “It is, quite frankly, one of the best critiques of current K-12 mathematics education I have ever seen.” He recommends that every policy-maker, educator and parent of a school-aged child with any responsibilities of teaching mathematics should read this book.

We’ve all seen children humming songs without care to the key that it’s in or how that song might be notated. We’ve also seen children take paints and crayons and experiment with the different media before they are taught about line, color, tone and other aspects of art. Yet, in math, Lockhart says we do not allow children enough time to enjoy and play with math and we ought to do so. According to Lockhart, the current K-12 curriculum in almost any textbook series only teaches kids a series of steps in how to solve a particular type of problem, along with some special notation. As Lockhart puts it, the current system “[destroys] a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern making.” He claims that math is “simple and beautiful.”

He gives an example  of a triangle in a rectangular box.

How much space do you think it takes up? How do you suppose you can find out?

What Lockhart laments about is that without teachers who understand the beauty of math, we don’t allow children to grapple with this problem long enough before we rush to give them the formula 1/2bh.  If we allow kids to ‘play’ with this puzzle, they may actually discover it themselves.


Children will delight when they discover that by drawing a vertical line from the tallest part of the triangle, they will see that they have created two rectangles, and that the area of each triangle part is half of two smaller rectangles.

Today in class we were working with geo-boards and rubber bands. I teach second grade and the main objective was to create a variety of shapes with right angles to measure area (in square units) and perimeter (in units). When one student, who clearly got the concept was done early, I asked her to play with this puzzle for a while. I built a 3X2 rectangle and a triangle inside it. I asked her to think about how she might find the area of the triangle. After about five minutes, she lit up and with much excitement explained that she could divide the shape into two smaller rectangles and found the area of each one to be half of the rectangle. I asked her to try with a different rectangle and triangle, and her response was instant. What I didn’t give her was the traditional formula. She had basically discovered it on her own without realizing it.

Remember, I teach second grade, so this was exciting for me too. With the other children, some were excited in discovering the area of a rectangle to be the base multiplied by its height. This too was a discovery for these students and the joy of math was evident. I also did not provide a formula for them even after their discovery.

There are many critics to Lockhart’s point of view that it took centuries to arrive at many mathematical theories. He would argue that math which is rich “has been reduced to a sterile set of facts to be memorized and procedures to be followed. They are given the formula: Area of a triangle = 1/2 b h and are “asked to apply it over and over in exercises…By removing the creative process and leaving only the results of that process, you virtually guarantee that no one will have any real engagement with the subject…By concentrating on what and leaving out why, mathematics is reduced to an empty shell.”

Finally, here’s one last quote: “Math is not about following directions, it’s about making new directions.”

In the next few weeks, our school is about to go through a selection process for a math curriculum. While I empathize with Lockhart, there also needs to be a balance. I hope that when it comes time to discuss and debate the pros and cons of each math curriculum, we keep an open mind to process, discovery, and relevance, rather than what’s easiest to implement or what is an efficient way in transmitting a set of rules for practice and compliance.

Anyway, the book is an easy read, very compelling, and makes you think. Whether or not you agree completely with the author’s point of view.